Modernizing the electricity grid with digital communications has become a national priority in the U.S., but people in related industries are concerned that a lack of standards could undercut the benefits of a smart grid.
The IEEE next month will convene its first meeting to hash out what interoperability standards are required for smart-grid technologies. It will be held at Intel's headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., and bring together representatives from the IT, communications, and power industries.
"Smart grid" doesn't refer to one specific technology but the notion of modernizing the electricity distribution system with digital technologies. Smart meters in a person's home, for example, can communicate energy usage to utilities in near real time. That allows the utility to more efficiently manage the electricity supply and potentially allow a consumer to take advantage of cheaper rates.
The federal Recovery Act, or stimulus package, dedicates $4.5 billion to fund installation of smart-grid technologies. Equipment is being developed from a raft of smart-grid start-up companies as well as IT companies, including IBM, Cisco, and Intel, looking for more revenue in the utility industry.
There are a number of utility-run smart-grid trial programs around the world, but for these technologies to be adopted rapidly, there need to be interoperable products, said Chuck Adams, president of the IEEE Standards Association, and Dick DeBlasio, program manager at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and IEEE smart-grid liaison.
"We see a lot of learning that we can do, but if we don't capture it with the first investment of $4.5 billion, we're losing a great opportunity," said DeBlasio. "So if there's another four or eight billion dollars (in investment), we'll still be learning and we'll have nothing to base our equipment design on."
As it stands now, there's a mishmash of competing protocols and standards, said Joe Hughes, a senior technical manager at the Electric Power Research Institute who called the situation today "confused and chaotic."
There are some standards, such as networking protocols, that can be applied for embedding digital controllers and communications in grid distribution equipment. But the task of agreeing on standards is complicated by the fact that it requires coordinating different industries, Hughes said in an article published last fall.
The IEEE standards project, called P2030, will seek to come out with a guide for tackling various aspects of the smart grid, which touches everything from wireless chips in smart meters to energy storage. For example, integrating wind and solar power generation into the grid requires agreed-upon ways to manage the flow of energy around the grid.
"We're trying to develop standards as we develop the smart grid, but you need to have a base of understanding," DeBlasio said.